'A Crown of Shame' Explained: Male Survivors of Sexual Violence in Conflict

 A Crown of Shame is a project dedicated to amplifying the voices of male rape survivors in conflict by drawing attention to the existence of men and boys as victims of sexual violence. The project narrows in on the post-traumatic effects of male rape and the failed acknowledgement of male victims by the international community. The themes explored in this photoshoot attempt to narrate the physical, emotional, mental and culture-excluding effects of rape expressed in a sparse collection of non-fictional accounts given by male survivors in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Northern Uganda. The themes include gender-identity crisis and a cultural loss of masculinity, the absence of rehabilitative and medical care, rape and the attack on the body as well as, the international community's shallow recognition of men and boys as victims of sexual violence. 

Up until recently, international organisations (mainly the UN) have excluded men and boys when defining who are the victims of sexual violence in conflict. In recent years international agencies such as the UN's Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict have attempted to expand the victim category by acknowledging men and boys in their reports. However, this acknowledgement usually ends here at the mere mention of 'men and boys'. Sandesh Sivakumaran in his journal article 'Lost in translation: UN responses to sexual violence against men and boys in situations of armed conflict', comments that the brief recognition of men and boys as victims fails to manifest into diligent awareness-raising and research efforts needed to identify the nature of their abuse. Identifying the nature of sexually violent acts, who they are used against, who they are used by and why they have been used, can reveal the perpetrator's intentions and tactics for warfare. For example, in the DRC, rape was used as a tool to humiliate individuals and communities into submission by various militia groups as revealed in the APF News Agency's 2013 report on this issue. For this reason, male rape in this context was a strategy used to establish social hierarchies of power that allowed for militia groups to rule over their victims. Notably, it is interesting that the sexual orientation of the perpetrators of male rape have not been questioned in academic literature or in personal accounts by male survivors. Consequently, this assumes the sole use of male rape in this context was about acquiring and maintaining power and nothing else (i.e. sexuality).

Victims of Male Rape Suffer in DRC from Lack of Support - APF News Agency, 2013

In addition to the lack of recognition by UN agencies, the role that African communities have played in silencing this sensitive reality should not be overlooked when examining the ignorance of international actors. The immense stigma attached to the rape of women and then to rape men have contributed to the sparse accounts of men talking about their abuse. It is unthinkable across many different African cultures for a man to be a victim of rape as highlighted in Lahoucine Ouzgane's and Robert Morrell's book, African Masculinities. Masculinity in these cultural contexts commonly stipulate men as physical (and financial) protectors of the vulnerable (women and children) and thereby protectors of themselves. Consequently, if a man reveals he has been raped by another man it opposes this traditional concept of masculinity and immediately displaces the victim from their masculine gender identity. Evidence of this can be viewed by one male survivor's account of his abuse in the DRC when he reveals his perpetrators referred to him as "their wife" (in the video below). Here, the title wife is used to connote (abusive) sexual relations. Additionally in other accounts, the wives of male survivors abandoned their husbands upon the discovery of their rape. In these cases, wives saw their husband's assault as an attack on their manhood thereby reducing their husband to the social status of wife or a woman.

' [W]ives who discover their husbands have been raped decide to leave them. "They ask me: 'So now how am I going to live with him? As what? Is this still a husband? Is it a wife?' They ask, 'If he can be raped, who is protecting me?' There's one family I have been working closely with in which the husband has been raped twice. When his wife discovered this, she went home, packed her belongings, picked up their child and left. Of course, that brought down this man's heart."' (Guardian, 2011

Congos Male Rape Victims Speak Out - APF News Agency, 2009

"In Africa no man is allowed to be vulnerable," says RLP's [Refugee Law Project's] gender officer Salome Atim. "You have to be masculine, strong. You should never break down or cry. A man must be a leader and provide for the whole family. When he fails to reach that set standard, society perceives that there is something wrong." (Guardian, 2011)

Geographical and cultural references explained:

The images showcase the model (Seyon Amosu) as softly stunned by the blatant ignorance of London's Piccadilly Circus stampede. In a location known for its ability to attract tourists from every corner of the globe to its stores, stands a bewildered black man culturally and aesthetically juxtaposed to his location. The cultural identity, age and other details about this very visible man remain unknown to these foreign figures that exhibit disposable wealth and negligence as they shop and tour Piccadilly. These foreign figures represent international organisations such as the UN and its dismissive disregard and shallow recognition of men and boys in its reports of sexual violence. 

'Visibly unseen'

Photographer - Hannah Bamgbala, Creative Director - Helen Opuama

Model - Seyon Amosu

The use of the Maasai Shuka worn by the Maasai tribe across East African countries such as Kenya and Tanzania and the Gele, a West African headdress notoriously worn by Nigerian women, symbolise the geographical breadth of possible male victims of sexual violence whose stories remain untold and undiscovered in Africa. Although the inspiration for this shoot initially began with analysing sexual violence in the DRC, I wanted to highlight that male rape could and can happen anywhere in any conflict, hence the model's unknown country of origin.

'Face my story'

Photographer - Hannah Bamgbala, Creative Director - Helen Opuama

Model - Seyon Amosu

The boisterous and flamboyant orange/golden Gele contrasted against the model's rich dark skin that is further complemented by his golden facial hair, presents a culturally shocking image that confronts gender mislabelling in the context of sexual violence. Geles are traditionally worn by women and are never to be worn by men in West Africa. The Gele is a metaphor for how sexual violence has been perceived by African and international communities. It illustrates the traditional perspective of rape as a weapon thought to be used by men only against women. The photos show a man clothed in what traditionally is known to be worn by women to depict the non-fictional and underreported reality of men as victims of rape in conflict in Africa.

Why the title of A Crown of Shame?

I titled this project a crown of shame after reading 'The rape of men: the darkest secret of war' in The Guardian and when I decided to use a Gele to capture the issues of the gender mislabelling and community stigma.

In the Guardian article, the first image showcases a male survivor cradled on top of a mattress on the floor with his head hung down in hopelessness. The image is titled 'Dying of shame'. This stigma of shame surrounding male rape victims was commonly narrated by the few accounts of male survivors and I wanted to incorporate this common reality in my work.

'Drowning in shame'

Photographer - Hannah Bamgbala, Creative Director - Helen Opuama

Model - Leslie Avbara

Click here to see 'A Crown of Shame'

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